Wednesday, July 23, 2008

DVD of the week: The Velvet Underground Under Review

We're going to try as much as possible to make this a regular feature. We spend enough of our time talking about the latest thing we got from Netflix that we figure we might as well blog about them, so here goes...

This is the third movie in this series we've seen (the previous two being the Syd Barrett and Patti Smith volumes), and like the others, it's a quick glide through a career through the eyes and ears of a fairly random sample of witnesses and critics. This one had the distinct advantage of having a couple of actual band members involved, said members being the humbly awesome (as always) Maureen Tucker and a rather dazed and bemused Doug Yule, who still seems to be reeling from being thrown into the deep end some 40 years ago.

Other talking heads include Billy Name, who comes off as a likeable, bearded old sage explaining how various album covers came into being (mostly through happy accidents), recording engineer Norman Dolph who sheds some light on the recording of that first album, and a slew of critics: the incredibly snotty yet sometimes insightful Robert Christgau, the well-informed but sometimes questionable Clinton Heylin (Heylin has written several very useful books, but often when he sets out to State His Big Case, I end up going "huh?"; for instance when he asserts that, unlike any other band of their time, the Velvets were completely unprecedented and there was no way to trace their influences on first hearing, my own critic-brain started thinking of the first album's near-direct allusions to everything from the Stones, Byrds, and Dylan to Marlene Dietrich and Ornette Coleman. Now if their first album had been White Light, White Heat, Heylin might've had a case, but anyway...this is the sort of overreaching "definitive statement" that bugs me to no end about rock critics in general. Moving right along...), and lesser known characters like Malcolm Dome, who seems to show up in every one of these things and never has much to say, but is such an thoroughly entertaining maniac it doesn't matter.

There's also a series of segments featuring a guitarist who explains the mechanics of several songs by playing them, which is actually more enlightening than that might sound. And we get to meet the former owner of the Boston Tea Party, who seems like the coolest club owner ever as he reminisces about his role in giving the band a home base away from home when they left Andy Warhol and stopped playing New York.

What you don't get: any input from Lou Reed (probably a good thing, considering his ego and controlling nature) or John Cale (would have been nice, but you can't have everything, and for his side of the story, What's Welsh For Zen will do fine), or much in the way of live footage, as the VU, especially considering their immersion in a wildly creative and self-documenting art scene, barely seem to have been captured at all other than a few scraps of out-of-sync or silent film. But Mo Tucker is always a delight, dead cool without trying to be, with a sweet twinkle in her eye and great pride in her voice when she talks about the band. The fleeting moments where we can watch her drumming inspired me a lot when I laid down a drum overdub for a Meri St. Mary track we're working on. (More on that later.) It's such a crazy idea, yet so effective: don't bother with the kick drum pedal, just lay it down on its side and pound it with mallets! (I remember seeing Bobby Gillespie copy this style in the early Jesus & Mary Chain.) And I enjoyed seeing her state emphatically that she hated it when drummers would stop playing the drum because they were busy with the cymbal, and that drummers should be hitting the drums all the time. (Mo's style was not a cute, primitive accident, it was an artistic decision, and she wants you to know that!)

It's interesting to see the Doug Yule footage. He doesn't get a lot of respect, and he seems to know it, which is sad. I used to be one of those VU fanatics who had a glib attitude regarding Yule too. These days I think I was unfair; after all, he had a hand in that deep, lovely third album as well as the incredible 1969 Live recordings, and the immortal "What Goes On" shows that he could drone with the best of them. What we are reminded of here is that Yule, the guy who replaced the very influential, strong-willed Cale, was nothing but a kid who clearly had no idea what he was getting into. Now middle-aged, he often becomes sullen, defensive and uncomfortable as he recalls his years with the band. When the subject of "Candy Says" comes up, he bristles at Reed's past mocking statements that Yule had no idea what the song was about, and counters that if he had, he would have refused to sing it. (If so, Reed was smart not to have told him, since his innocent choirboy voice nails that song like nobody else ever has since...including the highly overrated Antony Hegarty, IMNSHO.)

If you're a true VU fan, you probably won't learn too many new things from this movie, but it's a fun ride nonetheless.


Ian Schultz said...

The Joy Division : Under Review is one of the worst things i've ever seen, pseudo intellectuals talking about Joy Division, no real people that involved with them, closest to a involvement is Tony Wilson's ex-wife. They blow up the footage which is probably taken from youtube and makes it look even worst than the quality already is. The VU might be alright, would be interesting to hear Doug Yule's comments.

J Neo Marvin said...

I get the impression that the Under Review series varies widely in quality, but this particular one worked for me. Billy Name, the Boston Tea Party guy, Mo and Yule carried the whole thing really. A little more focus on Sterling Morrison would've been nice.

Since Joy Division just had a proper documentary and a fiction feature in the last year or two, it's hard to imagine the Under Review installment adding much to the picture. How'd you do on the obligatory trivia quiz?

Ian Schultz said...

The Quiz was actually really hard (it did live up to the title "hardest Joy Division quiz in the world"), it was really obscure questions like what make guitar did Ian Curtis play, I got like 60% right.

The Joy Division documentary was fantastic, I've seen it twice and I first saw it in Manchester which was surreal because you see the footage/pictures of "old manchester" and new Manchester and you just see how old Manchester was better, it also has one of the funniest stories ever... it involves William S. Burroughs and Ian Curtis meeting.

The fictional film was good but too short and should have had a bit more with the band.

I would love to see a Jesus & Mary Chain documentary sometime since every album they did was complete different and never did what the fans wanted and especially the critics...

Psychocandy = Beach Boys with Noise
Darklands = Beach Boys meet the Blues
Automatic = Dirty Electronic rock n' roll
Honey's Dead = Early 90s Alternative Rock
Stoned & Dethoned = Folk Rock
Munki = Messy fuck you to the record industry

and it would be amusing to see all the riot stuff as well and how they called the "new sex pistols" (they got banned tons of places in the UK like The Pistols) and fitting destruction of the band in 98 and how the hell they got back together. I will probably make one eventually since I vaguely know William Reid, I told him he was wrong about what music video he talking about... he got confused about his music videos and I corrected him.

and a another terrible about Joy Division : Under Review... they could even get the press whore Tony Wilson interviewed!

J Neo Marvin said...

I hope you do that JAMC documentary one day, Ian.

I think Darklands was more "third VU album with a proper budget", myself. Reagardless, I love that album. The title song was one of Maati's favorites; I had it played at her funeral.

How did you meet William Reid? That's worth a story.

It was a Vox Teardrop Ian Curtis played, weren't it? [/pedantic wanker]

Recognized your mom's writing in a Daily Kos diary the other day. (Who else would quote me?) Say hello; hope the move went OK. Just had to do that ourselves.

Ian Schultz said...

I didn't meet William Reid, it was on the message board that is officially unofficially called Some Candy Talking, William has been known to post on it and I corrected him on the 2 videos he got mixed up and said "don't stop correcting the old git", I did meet the original bass player though, he is a complete mess, he is a complete junkie, he directs the videos for Primal Scream, need I say more? I met him at the first UK jamc reunion show.

It was Plan K show....
here is the info about it...

The move is going ok, a little slow but we have like 2 more weeks so it will ok.

and it was Mitzi's writing, she is on it all the time, it's your homepage on her computer.

the reason I said it sorta a Beach Boys esq. album is a couple of the riffs are very Beach Boys like, Cherry Came too is alot like Surfin' Safari.